Is bronchitis contagious? And how to prevent this infection?


Last Updated October 11th, 2019

What Is Bronchitis?

Inflammation of the bronchial tubes following an upper respiratory infection is called bronchitis.  Inflammation of the bronchial tube makes the passage of air to and from your lungs difficult and cause problems with breathing.  This, in turn, will lead to persistent coughing spells.  The coughing spells could be so severe that it can cause chest pain.  People generally call bronchitis as chest cold since it occurs following an upper respiratory infection.  Majority of bronchitis cases occur due to a viral infection and hence antibiotics can be of little help.

Facts about bronchitis

  • Acute bronchitis affects around 5% of adults whereas around 6% of children have at least one episode in a year.
  • It has been estimated that more than 10 million people from the United States visit the doctor due to bronchitis every year.
  • Around 70% of the patients with bronchitis receive antibiotics which are not needed.
  • Around 3.4% to 22% of the general population is affected by chronic bronchitis.
  • Smoking is considered the primary cause of chronic bronchitis.
  • Around 8.6 million people from the United States were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in the year 2016.

Acute versus chronic bronchitis

Bronchitis is divided into two main categories namely acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis.  Both the types are generally caused by a viral infection and very rarely caused by a bacterial infection.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is the most commonly caused infection and generally is diagnosed following an upper respiratory tract infection.  Coughing spell is the most common symptom of acute bronchitis and the infection can last up to 10 days.  Coughing may persist for a longer period depending on the severity of the infection.  Since the upper respiratory tract infection precedes this infection, both URI and acute bronchitis are caused by the same viruses.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, is a more serious type of infection.  It can be termed as the extension of acute bronchitis.  The symptoms associated with chronic bronchitis are similar to acute bronchitis, but the symptoms last for a prolonged period of time and can lead to deterioration in the lung function.  Constant irritation and inflammation of the bronchial tube is the cause of this problem due to the accumulation of mucus.

Chronic bronchitis can be caused by both virus and bacteria.  Since the mucus gets accumulated in the bronchial tubes for an extended period of time, there is an increased chance of viral or bacterial attack.  Smoking is considered the biggest cause of chronic bronchitis and it has been estimated that around 25% of smokers can be affected by chronic bronchitis leading to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Causes and risk factors of bronchitis

As discussed earlier, it is the same viruses that cause cold and flu cause bronchitis as well.  Majority of the cases which is around 85 to 95% of the acute bronchitis is caused by viruses.  The most common viruses causing this infection include influenza A and B, rhinovirus, parainfluenza, and adenovirus.

If bronchitis is caused by bacteria it is mainly due to an underlying health condition.  Both viral and bronchial infections cause the bronchial tubes to become inflamed and create more mucus, making it harder to breathe.  Infant, children, and elderly people having a weaker immune system naturally are the ones who are greatly affected by acute bronchitis.  On the other hand, chronic bronchitis affects adults.

As discussed earlier, smoking, both first hand, and second-hand smoking are considered the primary cause of chronic bronchitis.  According to research, it has been estimated that around 40% of smokers may develop this problem in their lifetime and can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  It was also determined that the risk can be reduced by cutting down on smoking and increasing their physical activity.

As per a report, women are more susceptible to acquire chronic bronchitis as compared to men which can be attributed to a weaker immune system, smoking, and living around smokers.  Other factors such as chemical fumes, dust, and work-related environments such as coal mining, livestock handling, textile manufacturing, and grain handling are considered as the risk factors for chronic bronchitis.

What are the signs and symptoms that indicate bronchitis?

The most noticeable and prominent symptom is a persistent cough that can last for several days after the infection has subsided.  Since bronchitis is preceded by cold or flu, you may also experience symptoms such as fever, sore throat, stuffy/runny nose, body ache, loss of appetite, and fatigue.  You would also experience an increased amount of mucus production which comes up while coughing.

If the mucus is green or yellow, it is a clear indication that the bronchial tubes are an infection.  Apart from coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath are quite common during a bout of acute bronchitis.  Cough is also associated with chest pain due to persistent coughing.  You may also experience a whistling sound when you breathe.

How is bronchitis diagnosed?

Since upper respiratory infection precedes bronchitis, you will also be experiencing symptoms of URI such as sore throat, fever, runny/stuffy nose, and the persistent cough.  The doctor would initially assess the patient’s medical history followed by a physical examination with the help of a stethoscope to assess how well the lungs are functioning.  Tests would be ordered to corner the pathogen involved and these tests include throat swab.  Further, imaging may be required such as chest x-ray to confirm the presence of bronchitis.

Conventional treatment for bronchitis

Since the majority of bronchitis cases are caused by viruses, there is nothing much you can do to treat them since antibiotics are not going to help.  Symptomatic relief can be obtained by drinking lots o fluids and taking ample rest.  Symptoms of bronchitis can be kept under check by providing over the counter treatments.  Some of the common treatments rendered for bronchitis include:

Expectorant

Your doctor would prescribe you an expectorant to help remove the mucus accumulated in the lungs and bronchial tubes.  This generally would not completely treat cough but can help you by loosening the mucus and the mild sedation present in the expectorant would help you to sleep through the night.

Bronchodilators

Bronchodilators are helpful in removing the mucus from the bronchial tubes and help with breathing.

Anti-inflammatory medications

This is generally prescribed to reduce the inflammation associated with the mucus plugging.  Studies have indicated that chronic inflammation can lead to tissue damage and hence anti-inflammatory drugs play an important role in relieving the symptoms.

Oxygen therapy

Difficulty with breathing can be relieved with oxygen therapy which improves oxygen intake.

Pulmonary rehabilitation program

People suffering from chronic bronchitis would require the help of a respiratory therapist to improve breathing patterns.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not prescribed generally for bronchitis.  If the sputum test returns positive for a bacterial infection, then antibiotics are prescribed to target the particular bacterium.

Humidifier

A humidifier helps in loosening the mucus and helps with breathing.  This is helpful if the patient is experiencing severe wheezing.

Breathing exercises

Your doctor would suggest breathing exercises such as pursed-lip breathing to reduce breathing.

How is bronchitis transmitted?

As discussed earlier, there are two types of bronchitis namely acute and chronic.  It is acute bronchitis that is contagious which means you can contract it from another person or you can transmit it to another person.  Since bronchitis is caused by viruses, it can be transmitted from one person to another when they are close to one another.  When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the droplets containing the virus travels through the air and land on surfaces.

When a healthy person comes in contact with these droplets, they get infected.  This process generally happens when the droplets land on surfaces such as nose, mouth, or the airways.  People having a weak immune system such as infants, children, and elderly tend to contract them easily.

Complications associated with bronchitis

The most common complication associated with bronchitis is the development of pneumonia.  When the symptoms of bronchitis do not resolve within a stipulated period of time, the infection tends to spread all over the lungs causing pneumonia.  Studies have estimated that around 5% of patients suffering from bronchitis tend to develop pneumonia at a later stage.  It is also estimated that this generally occurs in older adults and smokers.

Suggestions to naturally treat bronchitis

Try anti-inflammatory foods

Since bronchitis is associated with inflammation, reducing these inflammations can help you treat these symptoms naturally.  Adding anti-inflammatory foods into your diet can reduce inflammations.  This not only strengthens your immune system but also decrease the inflammation.  Fruits, vegetables, as well as probiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir, and kombucha can strengthen your immune system.

Drink adequate amounts of water

Reduction in water consumption can lead to thickening of mucus, which may aggravate your symptoms.  Mucus can become thinner with adequate consumption of water and helps the mucus to come out of the system easily.

Use a humidifier

It is a device used to increase the humidity in the air.  This helps the mucus to loosen up and help with breathing.  Humidifiers are generally used in the night time to help with sleeping.

Quit smoking

Both first hand and second-hand smoking should be stopped immediately after the symptoms of bronchitis are experienced.  Smoking irritates the bronchial tube lining and can lead to persistent inflammation, which decreases air exchange and leads to severe bouts of coughing.

Pursed-lips breathing

It is a breathing technique where you keep your lips pursed while exhaling and inhale through the nose.  Chronic bronchitis symptoms can be relieved by following this breathing technique.  It helps you to slow the breathing process as well as keeps the airways open for a longer period of time.  This enables the trapped air in the lungs to easily escape aiding in higher oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange.

How do I prevent bronchitis?

It is quite difficult to avoid bronchitis, but few lifestyle changes can help reduce the risk factors and these include:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after a social encounter.
  • Refrain from meeting people who are suffering from Uri
  • Stay away from crowded places such as buses, trains, etc.
  • Stop cigarette smoking.
  • Get a flu shot.

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